Michael Kandel was many things to many people at different times, but his musical career can best be summed up by the fact that he was the first electronic music artist to cover a country song.
Under the name Tranquility Bass – a ravey but suitably spacey identity that he never abandoned – Kandel is best known today for early 1990s anthems like “They Came In Peace” and “Cantamilla” – tracks which electrified the early American rave scene.
When Michael died on May 18, 2015, obituary writers (including myself) were careful to note the influential power of these tracks and equally careful to gloss over the rest of it. Michael was an unheralded founding father of Trip Hop, I wrote – and as frequently happens in modern internet journalism, pretty much all of us said the same thing.
That was a blown opportunity, that’s for sure. Because there was another side to Michael Kandel and Tranquility Bass – something staring right at us. While he was alive, this other music that Michael had made – somehow more accessible and more obscure at the same time – was almost entirely neglected but the press. Sometime in the late 1990s, Michael had transitioned from a producer into a musician, from the man collecting samples like recyclable cans to a songwriter whose own voice was probably his best, most evocative instrument. A few noticed, but most of us just shrugged or didn’t pay much attention to the strange machines the cosmic hippie constructed in his shed.
There are a few reasons for this. I think you can start with the notion that little of this material was made for dancefloors. Some of it was, or so he said, made deliberately without DJs in mind. It’s “Trip Hop” only because that’s what Michael’s devoted but dwindling core audience knew of him. It bears far more resemblance to Acid Jazz, Folk, Funk and Jam Band music – the kind of genres that are only incidentally “electronic.”
Sometime in the late 1990s, Michael had transitioned from a producer into a musician, from the man collecting samples like recyclable cans to a songwriter whose own voice was probably his best, most evocative instrument. A few noticed, but most of us just shrugged.
Michael was a self-created artist, and he never stopped making himself over entirely. People in the press (particularly the dance press, which has never attracted the attention of the Pulitzers) aren’t especially understanding of that. He later became mainly a self-released artist at a time when it’s still depressingly difficult to attract the attention of anyone other than “friends” without mounting a marketing campaign and spoonfeeding the story to the media. Most of the people who write about “electronic music” these days are DJs, and it’s fair to say that few of them would have had much of an idea of what to make of the bearded prospector standing before them. This is perhaps the only way I can figure out there were no reviews of any meaningful kind of his last releases, which quite simply matched and topped anything he’d released in his “heyday.”
When Michael Kandel died, most people wrote about him as an artist whose greatest works were far behind him. Even mine is couched in terms of an artist whose creative peak had gone.
This was wrong. I was wrong. This is my attempt to apologize for that, and to get you to pay attention to the last recordings released by one of the literal and figurative giants of the American music scene of our lifetime.
Birds & Beats
Much can be written about Michael Kandel’s early works and the founding of Tranquility Bass. Much already has. In the limited space available here, I want to pass quickly over some of the story that’s already been told by a multitude of voices to get to the one that hasn’t.
Michael grew up in Chicago but was made in California, the way that countless young men used to set out West when they came of age and wanted to find themselves. He attended Cal Arts in the mid-1980s and met Tom Chasteen, who would become half of the first incarnation of Tranquility Bass.
Michael was born on May 18, 1967, which placed him in almost precisely the right place and time to absorb the influences of Chicago’s fledgling first wave of House Music. He didn’t. He said he visited the Warehouse once and was appalled. “I was completely dismayed at what people were doing,” he said. It took awhile and the influence of Acid House’s primal screams for him to understand what was happening beyond hedonism. Probably more importantly, Michael made an extensive trip through Southeast Asia in 1988 (joined by Tom in Burma, just prior to the military junta’s crack down the democracy movement). The culture, sounds and terrain of Asia would remain a decisive influence on his music for all of his life.
Kandel and Chasteen returned to Los Angeles to build a studio and a sample bank that would seed Michael’s music for years, including recordings he made of ambient sounds, like birds or street noise. They also made a label together which they called Exist Dance, and they made music together which they released under a variety of names. The one that stuck was “Tranquility Bass.”
More time has elapsed since the release of “They Came In Peace” in 1991 and today than had passed between the moon landing in 1969 and the Tranquility Bass record that sampled from it. Just the second release on Exist Dance, “They Came In Peace” is widely regarded one of the most influential electronic records made in the United States in the 1990s.
It’s very much a record of its time, and that’s largely because it played such a crucial role in defining it. In retrospect, it feels like “They Came In Peace” is a large, slightly blurry photograph of the mind of American youth culture circa 1991, when a thousand contrary but somehow interconnected thoughts out of the pages of Mondo 2000, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, science fiction authors and cybernetic systems analysts and techno-utopians and hardcore ecologists were striking against the walls and one another. “They Came In Peace” somehow took all of these notions and folded them into a big, sloppy opus, wrapped in an envelope both delicate and resilient. It captures a zeitgeist few were able to articulate then, much less capture in music.
Voices cant in a delicate lilt, gloriously indifferent to the voice that intones with some brutality: “We came in peace for all mankind.” Electronic instruments rush to the rafters and then are drowned out by a simple but hypnotic tone from an acoustic upright bass. It’s the strangest “rave anthem” of them all. And it essentially created the sonic palette from which Michael Kandel would draw, even if people didn’t recognize it, for the rest of his life.
Michael Kandel on Lopez Island during the recording of Let The Freak Flag Fly
“A Free Form Hippy Freak-Out Band”
“They Came In Peace” was just the second release on Exist Dance. Like most of the records Michael and Tom made during this period, it owes something to an era when music producers could speak genuinely about making records that lead the listener into an altered state of perception, and when the listener could agree without feeling anyone was being patronizing about it.
The hippie label was often hung on the purveyors of West Coast electronic music, whether or not the artists themselves deserved it. But Michael encouraged it. “Everything I touch sort of has a hippie element,” he would later say.
Like Hardkiss Music, Exist Dance would never be a runaway financial success despite being seemingly ubiquitous and obviously influential. Michael would later joke that he was using some of the many unsold copies of “They Came In Peace” as wall decorations. Eventually the label did catch on, breaking one bonafide hit (fellow traveler Freaky Chakra’s “Halucifuge”). Many of the best were collected on Transmitting From Heaven, a compliation of singles, which today offers a striking tree-ring view of the era. Certain songs – “Voodoo Fire,” “Crazy Jane” and “Straight Up Caffeine” – sound just like the early ’90s, with all the good and bad this implies. Others are too strange, even by Tranquility Bass’ standards, and defy easy categorization or chronology. They could have been made today.
Citing burnout, Chasteen dropped out of Tranquility Bass in 1993; whether it was worked out formally or it just worked out this way in the end, Michael continued on with the moniker “Tranquility Bass” on his own and Tom continued with Exist Dance after a few years of recharging his batteries. By the time the label returned, Michael had attracted the attention of a major label, Virgin, which signed him to their Astralwerks subsidiary.
The “Freak Flag”
The first prolonged studio sessions with a real label putting real money behind you can be an ordeal for any musician. For Michael it was an artistically transformational experience. It took two years of sessions on remote Lopez Island, and in that time his sound was completely reforged. From an electronic musician making music that could reasonably be expected to fit in on a dancefloor, he emerged as a grand maestro crafting songs without regard to – and sometimes seemingly in contempt of – the class of DJs who would theoretically be the market for a full-length Tranquility Bass LP. In fact, this entire first album, Let The Freak Flag Fly, was intentionally DJ-unfriendly, as he stated in interviews with the Chicago Reader and others.
Freak Flag is, however one of the most ambitious debut records I’ve ever heard. The tracks are unbelievably dense, as if Michael was trying to replicate the power of a full orchestra with banks of electronic equipment. When this still proved inadequate, he turned it over to live musicians playing instruments like fiddles, a clavinet, finger cymbals and the talking drum.
“After a seriously trippy blend of acid jams, techno beats, lysergic trombones, tribal drums, White Album-style acoustic numbers and funk throwdowns,” James Lien wrote in CMJ, “it winds up with, of all things, a lilting, countryish prairie anthem about fungus.”
That it was released on Astralwerks didn’t help anyone better understand what was one of the great musical transformations of the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, Astralwerks had not a clue what they had either. Caroline, which was in charge of marketing, pegged Tranquility Bass as a “free form hippy freak-out band,” which was at least somewhat closer to the truth than the notion that an album which featured tracks like the cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ 1927 ballad “Soldier’s Sweetheart” that could find a home on the dancefloors of 1997.
Certainly some of Michael’s fans followed him in this new direction, but it’s lamentable that the album was not properly marketed. “We All Want To Be Free” was such a perfect opportunity for a single that you wonder why it never happened. Reminiscent of the Beatles “Come Together,” it just reeks of a radio hit, and it might have been one had Astralwerks not tried to force the album at DJs with Fatboy Slim remixes. The entire album isn’t perfect – it’s adventurous, and sometimes it’s not clear where Michael is trying to lead you. But there’s a kind of low-key genius to tracks like “Free,” “The Bird” and “Five Miles High” that were heard by a depressingly small audience.
Freak Flag had been made without DJs in mind. If he was stung by the poor reception (it seems that more publications wrote about the crucible of making the album than expressed a liking for it), his musical growth wasn’t stunted in the least. With his follow up album, Michael seem to have abandoned even the idea of being an “electronic music” artist. In retrospect, Michael had progressed faster than anyone realized – play his second album beside Freak Flag and Michael’s growth is notable, but next to early Exist Dance records, he’s almost unrecognizable.
That follow-up record, Heartbreaks & Hallelujahs, was completed on March 21, 2002. It would take ten years for it to be released. For all the attention it received, it may as well have never been released at all.
What stands out most about Heartbreaks & Hallelujahs is the voice. Michael wasn’t new to singing but he stepped out as much more confident and evocative during these recording sessions. None of us who wrote about him after he died mentioned Michael’s vocal work, but by the time these sessions came about it was truly his best, most reliable instrument. From a hum to a limited but richly expressive tone, it is, in essence, “tranquil” – and the perfect vehicle for an album of deeply reflective and personal songs.
“My Very Last Song” stands out as a self-penned tribute, but so does “Think of Me.” The sixties pop of “Gone With Yesterday” (clocking in at a mere 3:11) should have been a single and still could be if someone is looking for a great song to cover. But he couldn’t restrain himself, and unspooled two epics that take up nearly half of the album’s playing time themselves: “Traveler” (17 minutes) and the superior “Just Like Phil/I Know Who I Am” (13 minutes). Some of these songs don’t work; “Juke Joint” sounds thin and weak when compared to the richer textures of Freak Flag and H&H, and “Freedom to Settle Down” is probably a song with deep significance to a restless traveler like Michael, but doesn’t really carry the feeling across. But it’s essentially a good album and sometimes it’s a great one.
The running length of Heartbreaks & Hallelujahs suggests that it would have fit just under the 74 minutes of music that could be packaged on CDs. It never was. The story is that Michael shopped H&H to other labels, only to have them go bankrupt one by one as the music industry imploded in the early 2000s. The “lost” album presaged the coming “lost” years of Michael, an exile from what he was seemingly put on earth to do.
A Hundred Billion Stars
The notion of Michael’s departure from the music industry reads like a novel, which is appropriate, because Michael was a novelistic figure. His only musical activity for a decade was clerical, if he was involved at all: the licensing and appearance of his early tracks – “They Came In Peace” and “Cantamilla” mostly – appearing on compilation CDs. He told people he was working on a travel documentary, and traveled far and often in his beloved Asia. The footage would later appear in self-made cuts of his songs – oddly compelling pieces of footage which appear to be random, sometimes devoid of any but the most minute activity.
His first steps were tentative. Exist Dance was reincarnated as a label on Bandcamp. The “Broadcast Standard” series was reissued digitally, as was Transmitting from Heaven. Heartbreaks & Hallelujahs was mastered and finally released in 2012. I haven’t been able to find a single review of it.
Michael released a drone project, God Particle, with Wesley Owen. He also released two beautiful tracks infused with neo-Asian melodies that seemed to bring back the original spirit of Tranquility Bass, tempered & refined by time. Released nearly three years apart, “A Hundred Billion Stars” and “Sometimes I Lose My Soul” nevertheless sound similar enough that they can be considered two halves of the same opus. And while it sounds like a return to the “electronic” side of Tranquility Bass, both apparently feature live percussion by Anthony Mainiero. They were also released in long (10 minute+) edits without remixes or much in the way of promotion.
Like Heartbreaks & Hallelujahs, I wasn’t able to find a review of these records anywhere. I didn’t know Michael personally, and this music as well as his life here in Chicago slipped completely under my radar. It’s a small consolation, but apparently I wasn’t the only one.
I was sitting in a local bar listening to a guy give me the history of Trip Hop and electronic music. After 5 or 10 minutes, I asked him if he had ever heard of Tranquility Bass. He said no. I was not insulted or even bummed, but after a few days this made me a little depressed. Oh well, life is what life is…
In April 2015, Michael took a road trip through the Old West (he was photographed in front of an Apollo capsule among other places) and met with Chasteen. According to friends, he was planning to move back out. While on the road – if you can say that about such a restless soul – he passed away from what friends described as natural causes, on May 17, 2015.
Michael Kandel looked like a man who might take your soul. Instead he gave of us, to all of us, selflessly. He released several records of sprawling, sloppy genius that were among the best in their field. The man, while he was alive, and now the music really did deserve better.